Bill Clinton sailed to victory Tuesday and became the first Democrat to win back-to-back terms in the White House in more than half a century.
Clinton’s re-election capped a stunning comeback from the political humiliation dealt him midway through his first term, when voters rebuffed his leadership by granting Republicans control of Congress.
“We’ve got a bridge to build and I’m ready if you are,” Clinton said in a victory speech that reflected the slogan of his campaign. “Today the American people have spoken. They have affirmed our course. They have told us to go forward.”
Clinton went into Election Day with three clear goals: winning, garnering at least 50 percent of the vote - a prize that eluded him four years ago when he won with 43 percent - and sweeping in a Democratic Congress.
With 73 percent of the votes counted, Clinton was leading Republican nominee Bob Dole 49-41 percent, with Ross Perot at 8 percent.
It also appeared likely Republicans would retain control of Congress, making it all the more difficult for Clinton to control the agenda during his second term and put a lid on investigations into ethics allegations surrounding his administration. Voters have never before supported a Democratic president and a GOP Congress in the same election.
The message from voters, the president told tens of thousands of supporters in Little Rock, Ark., is to “put politics aside” and work together for a better future.
Clinton said he had spoken to Dole and thanked him for his service to the country and “for the work we did together for the common cause of America.”
“I am more grateful than I can say,” Clinton said. “You have given me an opportunity and a responsibility that comes to few people. I will do my best. And together we will - we will - build that bridge to the 21st century.”
He finished his speech and locked in a tight, teary-eyed embrace with his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and daughter, Chelsea.
Clinton’s victory was declared well before polls closed in the West, and he was competitive in every region of the country. By early this morning, he was declared the winner in 30 states with 375 electoral votes, while Republican nominee Bob Dole won 16 states with 135 electoral votes. Clinton needed 270 to win.
Shortly before Clinton’s address, a gracious Dole conceded defeat, telling a vocal crowd in a Washington hotel ballroom that he had pledged to Clinton his support.
Declaring he had never been prouder than to be the Republican nominee, Dole insisted: “I am still the most optimistic man in America.”
Dole concluded his final political campaign by saying: “So I leave you all tonight with a full heart and a fervent prayer that we will meet again and we will meet often in this land where miracles are always happening, where every day is a new beginning and every life a blessing from God.”
Even while they were casting ballots for Clinton, voters expressed concerns about him. More than half of voters said the president was not honest, according to a survey of voters leaving the polls, and half of Clinton’s own supporters said they had reservations about voting for him.
Commenting on the public skepticism over Clinton’s ethics, senior Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos said Clinton “has answered those charges and the people have spoken tonight.”
Both Dole and Reform Party candidate Perot tried to profit from public misgivings, raising questions about the president’s character and suggesting that he was not fit to occupy the White House.
In the end, though, voters said overwhelmingly that issues were more important to them than character, and that it was Clinton, not Dole or Perot, who shared more of their views.
“His greatest accomplishment was his management of the economy, and his reduction of the deficit without seriously reducing any major social programs,” said Susan Thompson, 47, a tax accountant in St. Paul, Minn. who voted for Clinton.
Four years ago, it was a weak economy that enabled Clinton to beat George Bush. This year, it was a strong economy, leading to voter contentment, that gave Clinton the power to overcome other, personal vulnerabilities.
At 50, Clinton becomes the youngest president ever to win a second term. Ironically, his re-election prevented Dole, at 73, from becoming the oldest man ever to win a first term.
His defeat represents the third for Dole in as many tries to win the presidency. Now, the former Senate majority leader, who quit a job he loved to seek a job he always wanted, goes back to being what he called “just a man.”
As the results poured in, Clinton racked up a commanding lead in electoral votes. He won traditionally Democratic states like New York and Minnesota, big swing states like California, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois, and took normally Republican states like Florida and Arizona.
Dole was held largely to his home state and scattered states in the South, Midwest and West. His biggest states were Texas and North Carolina.
In many ways, Clinton was an unlikely Democrat to become the first since Franklin Roosevelt to win a second term. From the start, his administration was embroiled in disputes over his personal foibles and public behavior.
Clinton suffered one congressional defeat after another early on, culminating in the 1994 election of a Republican Congress for the first time in 50 years.
The wrenching loss shook Clinton to his core, prompting him to re-evaluate his presidency, shift rightward and meld so far into the mainstream of public opinion that, by this year, he appeared unbeatable.
Now, he will move forward with his more recent, modest plans to continue working toward a balanced budget, cleaning up the environment, improving education standards, creating tax breaks for college tuition and for businesses that hire welfare recipients.
Nonetheless, many voters, even Clinton supporters, are looking ahead to a second term with trepidation. More than half the voters who responded to exit polls said they were either scared or concerned about a second term; less than half said they were excited or optimistic.
But more than half the voters polled after casting their ballots said they thought the country was “on the right track,” a message drummed by Clinton at almost every campaign stop.
MEMO: Changed in the Spokane edition